Unions: Friend or Foe to the Black Community

September 24, 2012

By: Takia Hollowell

Many individuals think of unions as a great income equalizer for blacks and one of the greatest allies against “systematic” racial discrimination.  Too often, proponents of this perspective have only been exposed to one side of the story.  I challenge the premise of those proponents from both a historical and economical standpoint.



The racist roots of unions is a story not often told.  Anyone looking for Fox News quotes will not find them here.  The historical aspect will be told mostly through the eyes of historical black activists.

Though slavery was an ugly blot of American history, it bore an unintended consequence that some whites were not prepared to deal with upon emancipation.

Booker T. Washington notes:

“On these [slavery] plantations young colored men and women were constantly being trained not only as farmers but as carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, brick masons, engineers, cooks, laundresses-sewing and housekeeping.” (The Negro Problem, Chapter 1)

The story continues…..



“In the skilled trades, at the close of the War of the Rebellion, most of the work was done by Negroes educated as artisans in the hard school of slavery, but there has been a steady decline in the number of such laborers, not because of lack of skill but because trade unionism has gradually taken possession of such employments in the South, and will not allow the Negro to work alongside of the white man.  And this is the rule of trade unions in ALL parts of the country.  It is to be hoped that there may be a gradual broadening of the views of white laborers in this vital matter and a change of attitude by the trade unions that they dominate.” (The Negro Problem: Chapter 7)

T. Thomas Fortune, Former slave and accomplished Journalist


It was the former slaves that possessed the coveted skill sets of the Industrial Age capitalists which enabled them to obtain employment faster than their unskilled counterparts.   As white workers feared the growth of competition from emancipated slaves, many unions were formed to keep blacks out of several professions.

The market could not remain free.  It HAD to be regulated.  This is precisely why UMW President John Mitchell stated in 1903 that, “The trade union movement in this country can only make progress by identifying with the State.”  (Mitchell, J. (1903) Organized Labor: Its Problems, Purposes and Ideals and the Present and Future of American Wage Earners. )

Enabled by both the federal and state government, unions obtained legal power to discriminate against blacks.  For example, Lester Granger of the National Urban League referred to the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) as “the worst piece of legislation passed by Congress.”  The NAACP also referred to it as “fraught with danger to Negro labor.” (Moreno, P. , Black Americans and Organized Labor: A New History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.)  Additionally, the pro-union Davis Bacon Act was blatantly and open created for the express purpose of suppressing black labor.

Frederick Douglass drafted an editorial titled, “The Folly, Tyranny and Wickedness of Labor Unions” in 1874.  In this writing Douglass gives his account of the racism he experienced against a caulkers union.


Even Marcus Garvey referred to them as “white unions” as he wrote:

If I must advise the Negro workingman and laborer, I should warn him against the present brand of Communism or Workers’ Partizanship as taught in America, and to be careful of the traps and pitfalls of white trade unionism, in affiliation with the American Federation of white workers or laborers.  It seems strange and a paradox, but the only convenient friend the Negro worker or laborer has, in America, at the present time, is the white CAPITALIST.”

He continued on:

I am of the opinion that the group of whites from whom Communists are made, in America, as well as trade unionists and members of the Worker’s party, is more dangerous to the Negro’s welfare than any other group at present.” 



Though organized labor proponents boast that millions of blacks are employed within their ranks, the economic consequences are not fully expounded upon.  While it is true that some blacks have benefited from unions, it comes at the expense of high unemployment for many in the urban community.  How so?  As union leaders push for artificially higher wages, it causes the price of labor to increase – causing the employer to hire less workers.  Labor, as any other commodity, is subject to the law of supply and demand and will greatly reduce as its price (wage) increases.  In layman’s terms, more jobs would be available for others to apply for.

Milton Friedman explains it best here:


And for my leftist readers screaming, “Right Wing Racism” from Milton Friedman, please take note the this is no new economic law.  I will close with the words of French economist Frederic Bastiat as he spoke on this very economic principle in 1848.  He was neither Democrat or Republican.

“But if, duped by that false philosophy…. they take to remunerating (compensating) labour largely, far from doing good, they will do harm.  They will give double wages, it may be.  But then, forty-five men will be better provided for, whilst forty-five others will come to augment (increase) the number of those who are sinking into the grave.”


Originally posted at www.kiradavis.net 


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